Thursday, April 05, 2007

Delusional nation

The Queen Mother popped her clogs five years ago.
This is what I wrote about it. It's the first chapter of the book I've been writing since 1922 and will hopefully complete by 2043.

Your plane may have just landed at Gatwick or Heathrow but it doesn’t take you long to register the press obsession with “what it means to be British in the 21st Century” and similar self-referential press exercises. Inches and inches of columns are devoted everyday as journalists and press-gurus alike express an abstract sense of self-doubt, self-flagellation and fait accompli regarding what’s left of Britain, England, Britishness and so on. If you reader are from overseas, then helping out is piss easy. How?
Well, one trait you wouldn’t fail to discern even if you fared the podium at the Olympics of dizzy people is the one of collective hysteria. Granted, pretty much all around the world people subconsciously enjoy moments of joint hysteria: collective panic, collective mourning, collective celebration and partying with the whole country in front of the telly or waiting for the latest news. But just watch the Brits fitting the narrative when the World Cup’s on, or when England play. Watch’em when Princess Diana died, watch them during the ephemeral “fuel crisis” of 2000. But above all, the way the strings were pulled at the death of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, aka the Queen Mother was textbook for the observer.
When Princess Diana suddenly died the world’s eyes were genuinely on the UK. Nobody deserves to end their days in such a horrible way, and the shock for the woman’s death was as genuine as it was palpable. She was popular all over, perhaps the most tip-of-the-tongue British woman worldwide for the best part of two decades. She enjoyed glamorous friendships, Armani, Versace, Sting and Elton John. Whether icon or victim, fact is the 31st of August 1997 provided our generation with its JFK moment. The 24-hour non-stop coverage of the events was therefore fully justified in terms of public interest. Less so the disproportionate reactions of ordinary people crying hysterically but that’s how the biscuit crumbles and with the media fostering it all and reaping the harvest with books, videos, and horrors like “Candle in The Wind”[1] recorded in a rush to cash it in on the corpse of Diana, then defeat has to be conceded. Nine years on, the Daily Express is at pains to incessantly come up with hearsays and residual conspiracy theories in order to sell more copies. Day in day out, its readers endure headlines like: “New developments in Di’s death enquiry”. The Diana industry isn’t over quite yet.
At 3:15pm on 30 March 2002 another total news blackout took place across the country. The Queen Mother[2] had snuffed it. The artificial display of patriotic rhetoric that followed would have made the Argentinean junta of the late 70s pale by comparison. It truly beggared belief to the eye that isn’t trained in the paradox of British psychology. Suddenly BBC1 broke into Auntie’s Bloomers and suspended all schedules. For at least 48 hours it flaunted a non-stop whirlwind of adulation, tributes and interviews with whoever had met the old lady, butlers, biographers and any lackey in Albion who’d seen her in the flesh for more than 30 seconds.
“You were very close to the Queen Mother, weren’t you?”
“Oh yes, I had the luck to meet her in 1951”.
“You did, didn’t you? And wasn’t she nice?” - question tags-a-go-go.
“Oh yes, she was a lovely lady, she was so generous, she had such a heart”.
“And tell me, wasn’t she also brave?”
“Oh she was extremely brave, she survived the Blitz in 1944”.
“What a brave woman, but her heart was always in the right place, wasn’t it?”
“Absolutely, the whole country loved her”.
“Yes, while the Germans were bombing she stayed put in her bunker, isn’t that incredible?”.
“Indeed, incredible. What an amazing lady. She stayed in her bunker and waited out the bad moment”.
And so on. Britain was rammed down its throat insightful “interviews” like that non-stop for the best part of two days if not more. The press covered the shocking event as if the whole of the UK had ground to a halt, devastated by the loss. Watching the BBC on March the 30th 2002, you’d have no doubt thought it as if the mourning masses were at pains to find out every single thing about her legendary life, old ladies jostling their teapots as they were grieving over a demigod passing away. You’d have betted your money on factories closing shops and people staging mass walkouts simply as a loyal tribute to the late Elizabeth I. Arafat was being made prisoner in his Palestinian compound at the same time, there were talks of recalling Parliament over impending war in Iraq[3], the government was passing crucial legislation about asylum seekers, yet it didn’t matter: the BBC were in the throes of telling us how brave the Queen Mother was for walking down the stairs unhelped.

But what blew me away was the total lack of connection between reality and narrative. Aside from a few romantic old ladies and a bunch of Daily Mail journos still mourning the loss of the Empire, absolutely nobody, and I mean N-O-B-O-D-Y in the country gave a shit about the “great loss”. Instead the BBC was at pains to fill the marathon tribute with things to say. And you have to hand it to them; if Resilience was a competition, those commentators who ranted on about the Queen Mother’s bravery for 48 hours would clear the tab. It certainly takes some genius to delude themselves that they’re turning a tedious “wasn’t she a brave woman” into the most epic newscast of the decade. And still take some stick for lacking “loyalty” to the royal family because a news presenter wore a burgundy tie instead of a black one”[4]. But without doubt it was no topic for a fag-break exchange, pub talks or general curiosity. In the real world, outside the BBC studios, life went on as normal, and people were much more concerned about how David Beckham & co were gonna fare at the impending Japan and Korea World Cup.

The dichotomy “real world vs. ivory tower” was truly startling. I actually pricked up my ears as I saw it an unbelievable observational experience. My radar was on the lookout to analyse what Britain may look like when a Queen Mother dies. And I swear even my most anti-royalist chromosomes wouldn’t have hoped for a more striking level of apathy. Josie Appleton summed it up alright: “In the world-according-to-the-BBC, Britons from all walks of life were united in paying our respects for two minutes at 11.30. The evening news on 9 April showed a cake factory where the icing and conveyer belts had halted, the women in their plastic caps with heads bowed; Birmingham New Street Station where everybody had frozen on the spot, looking as if they were playing a mass game of musical statues; young navy recruits lined up, their chests out. The view from Costa Coffee on Farringdon Road, London, was little different. A harried Italian waitress called for silence at 11.30; but most people carried on chatting, or looking at their watches as people hurried past outside. But in Westminster, where the reporters were, people had finally got into the swing of SNE (shared national experience). The Queen was apparently so 'moved' by the numbers who wanted to pay their respects that she made an unplanned address: 'I thank you for the support you are giving me and my family as we come to terms with her death.'”[5] People from all age groups, social levels, religions and races just shrugged with indifference. It just had no relevance whatsoever to their daily business. Yet the BBC insisted on covering the Queen Mother’s death as if some nuclear fallout had kickstarted the end of the world, like I’ve otherwise seen them do only for the 2005 London bombings or the death of Princess Diana in 1997, one a matter of national security and the other striking the heart of national consciousness. And in fact, on both those occasions the Brits indeed showed understandable hunger for news and revelations. Even Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun spoke of an “establishment en masse” being “out of kilter with ordinary people”, marking “the end of an era”[6]. Yet, the hysterics kicked off straightaway: before a formal notice is pinned up on the gates outside Buckingham Palace at 5.45pm, all the royal dignitaries dotted holidaying around the world have to be informed first. “Newspapers tear up their front pages, and rush to get their special commemorative sections on the presses. The tabloids replace the red mastheads with black versions. The News of the World clears the nipples from its news pages as a mark of respect[7]”.
Whatever TV channel you tuned in or paper you read, it seemed too late to escape the bombardment of bleeding obvious. Quotes follow quotes: “She was a lovely lady, She was a lovely lady, so lovely to people. I shall miss that smile of hers” (Dame Vera Lynn), "At our darkest hour of all time in 1940 she helped to turn it into our finest." (Lord St John of Fawsley), "Our country is the richer for her life and the poorer at her death." (former UK Prime Minister John Major). Even the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, joined in the populistic binge by reiterating the PR-friendly myth that "The Queen Mother held a special place in the hearts of many Londoners who remember her decision to stay in London during the Blitz." Nobody there to remind Red Ken that, during WWII, “the East End was not able to retreat to Windsor to catch up on sleep, or to spend recuperative holidays in Norfolk and Scotland. Nor was the East End able to supplement its diet with pheasants and venison shot on the royal estates”[8].
I sought respite from the sycophantic fever by nipping over to Sainsbury’s for some fags when an old lady at the papers section smiled: "She is such a gracious lady, don't you think?". Oh my god. G-r-a-c-i-o-u-s. Obviously the media had been hammering the word down with such sickening regularity that the parroting stage had already begun. Coz otherwise who the hell would utter the word "gracious"? If you were looking for sanity on those days you’d be fucked. “Officialdom” resembled a snippet off Invasion of The Body Snatchers, nobody under the age of 80 cared but you had to endure tributes about the Queen Mother being brave for enjoying her gin and tonic[9]. Proudly the BBC was trumpeting out that “they will mount one of the most ambitious broadcasting operations in its history to cover the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother”, concluding: “The massive television outside broadcast operation will pull together more staff and equipment than the combined studios of the BBC’s Television Centre”[10]. And could St. Tony Blair possibly shy away from this messianic evangelist bath? "During her long and extraordinary life”, he wailed from his countryside retreat of Chequers, “her grace, her sense of duty and her remarkable zest for life made her loved and admired by people of all ages and backgrounds, revered within our borders and beyond”. Pockets of sanity were left to a handful of independent bloggers reporting poignant entries from condolence books scattered around the country. One A G. Hollins from East Sussex had been reported as writing "No matter how she felt, no matter the situation, she always wore a smile. Just like a retard", followed by such Mr Wainwright from Hastings quipping: "She had such a difficult life, always battling against adversity and misfortune. Let us hope that if there is a next time round she is given a life of privilege and comfort". Alas, good old English humour was confined to the meanderings of the worldwide web. Life in the UK in early April 2002 consisted of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon dished out in all formats. “Strength, dignity and, yes, laughter. We come here to mourn but also to give thanks, to celebrate the person and her life - both filled with such a rich sense of fun and joy and the music of laughter. With it went an immense vitality that did not fail her.”[11]And if you thought that was epic, then you haven’t heard of true pomp: “Like the sun, she bathed us in her warm glow”, sighed the Archbishop. Amen.
But you see, in the UK there isn’t much room for reality. They collectively enjoy jokes at the expenses of the Germans fifty years on, stuck-up post-colonial lessons in life and economic management to France and Italy, but when it comes to their own courtyard, the term blindness doesn’t even come near the appropriate definition.

Few and far between were the comments that favoured facts and veracity over the sickening plethora of warm glows, graciousness, laughter, joy and bravery. Public indifference for the Old Bat aside, little was said about the most interesting -and no doubt disturbing- aspects of Queen Mother’s life. From Northern Ireland, John Gromley protested that “Nobody explained to me why I should feel any more sympathy for the Queen Mother than for any of the other people who died on Saturday […]. The same could have been said of any very elderly person who died at the weekend. In fact, elderly people who have lived their lives without the benefit of large amounts of wealth, free travel, several homes and a retinue of servants have probably achieved much more than the Queen Mother”[12]. Had there been such a thing as a consistent Tory you would have heard quotes of Iain Duncan Smith pleas to a bit of “common sense”, but alas, in the UK the very same concept is not often applied to the Royal Family.
Ireland aside, there was little visible protestation. “The Queen Mother's supposed role as a 'People's monarch', with her East End walkabouts and reported down-to-earthness, has been hyped beyond belief” wrote Jenny Bristow, adding that “The Queen Mother did not symbolise a generation; she symbolised, in many ways, the most degraded aspects of the British royal family - indolent, frivolous, fundamentally uninteresting”[13]. Yet everyone knew the Queen Mother had always been extremely vindictive, an obstacle to reform as well as a fan of pomp who bitterly opposed the notion that members of the royal family should pay tax. “When it became clear that Diana would not behave as she believed a royal should, the Queen Mother became the princess's greatest enemy (a mutual hatred recorded in Andrew Morton's Diana: her true story, in her own words)”[14]. Her adoration for Margaret Thatcher[15] and support for apartheid in South Africa was well documented, as much as her dislike for the unions and middle classes and her regret for the loss of imperial possessions. “She made it publicly known, when she was Queen, that she regretted the end of Britain’s colonial occupation of India”[16]. A staunch supporter of white minority rule in Rhodesia, “this person referred to black persons as nig-nogs [...], criticised their relative and friend's wife's mother for being a half breed, opposed immigration, and thought blacks (Africans) would not understand how to run their own country — could it be leading members of the BNP?”[17], wondered Davy Carlin, clearly not falling for the “bless-her-wee-cotton-socks” overriding rhetoric. But the most redolent point of all was the lavish lifestyle the Queen Mother had enjoyed at the taxpayers’ expense. But the way it works, in England, chances are the same taxpayers would simply shrugs (or get pissed) when presented the facts. A laudable exception is The Independent’s Johann Hari. In his view, never had the ‘guess-who’ game sounded more fitting: “I want you to imagine how the Daily Mail would describe a purely hypothetical person. This person –let’s say she is a woman – is old, very old and in the course of her long life racked up far more debt than she could ever dream of repaying (over £3 million), despite the fact that she’s never done a day’s work”[18]. While the country was deafened by packaged grief, “the nation’s favourite granny’s” millions wasted on vintage champagne, racehorses and parties as well as her five homes, including a Scottish castle with 25,000 acres worth £20 million[19], got wiped out from mere blueprint to the land of total oblivion.
Other sources spoke of a £4 million overdraft, as if eighty-three servants, four footmen, two pages, three chauffeurs, six cars, five chefs, five housemaids, an orderly, an housekeeper, a private secretary, money from her relatives and yet another £634,000 from the civil lists wasn’t enough.
In a country that, like finally recognised in 2006 by George Osborne, was defined “credit card UK” and where repossessions were at an old time high, the Queen Mother’s had enjoyed that humongous overdraft with no questions asked. No doubt to reward her big hearted patriotic generosity.
Because it’s obviously glossed over now, but Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon harboured more than a shred of sympathy for a man called Adolf Hitler, vehemently opposing Churchill’s anti-Nazi stance and “also sent a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf to a friend saying ‘even a skip through gives a good idea of his obvious sincerity’”[20]. The Queen Mother also guarded royal documents in vaults at Windsor Castle that detailed the abdicated king's relations with Hitler. They included captured German documents describing the Windsors' meeting with the Fuehrer in 1937 and plans to restore the Duke of Windsor to the throne if the Nazis won the war.
But although “far more people phoned in to complain about the length of royal coverage than its brevity”[21], the British subjects generally took in the grief-fest with a few grumbles and typical resignation. The only stir caused in those days of suffocating overhyped sorrow stemmed from a radically different angle. On ‘bereavement day’, the BBC newsreader Peter Sissons committed the mortal sin of failing to go on air wearing a black-tie, getting the Daily Mail to go haywire: “the BBC betrayed the British people”, “Royal fury at the BBC”[22], it yelled, adding that: “Mr Sissons chose to press Mrs Rhodes, the only person other than the Queen present at the deathbed, for intimate details of what had taken place in the final moments of the Queen Mother's life”. The Times instead left the conspiratorial doubt hanging that the BBC may have even ordered its presenters not to wear black ties[23]. How outrageous.
Although even some commentators on the right pleaded for sanity as they wondered “why should the newscasters hark back to the days of Lord Reith by dressing in mourning?”[24], it was going to take more to talk the Daily Mail and cohorts out of their grotesquely warped view of Britain. Two years before the headlines had already shouted “SHOW DYKE THE DOOR”, in objection to the BBC’s director general’s refusal to televise the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday in its entirety[25]. This time, over a burgundy tie instead of a black one, there wasn’t going to be any let up. Amidst enraged talks of “broadcasting infamy”[26], The Telegraph didn’t flinch: “Many licence-fee payers were upset that Peter Sissons, the chief newscaster, failed to wear a black tie, adopting a burgundy one instead. There were also complaints that the Queen Mother was twice described as an ‘old woman’, and that BBC interviewers attempted to question the future of the Royal Family”[27]. Alan Taylor of the Herald was quick at satirising the hysteria: “Swiftly, I changed out of my shellsuit and into my black tie and dinner jacket and turned on BBC 1, expecting at the very least to see the screen with a black border. Instead, there was Peter Sissons dressed like a sports presenter, wearing a burgundy tie. "What is the world coming to!" I yelled. "Take him off to the Tower!" There and then, I decided to withhold my licence fee. If the BBC cannot get the etiquette right why should the rest of us bother?”[28]
And to add insult to injury, Boris Johnson of The Spectator magazine claimed Prime Minister Tony Blair had tried to 'muscle in' on plans for the Queen Mother's lying-in-state, backed up by a Mail on Sunday claim that a Downing Street aide had telephoned General Sir Michael Willcocks, the senior parliamentary official known as Black Rod, and asked if Tony Blair would be able to greet the Queen and the coffin as it arrived at Westminster Hall. “Blair feared the Black Rod” were the headlines[29]. My alarm kicked me out of bed at 6.30am. As I got ready to go to my translating job in Leamington, I wondered if, in April 2002, anybody would have given a toss about all the tabloid mayhem.

[1] Pop star Elton John rushed to record what will become the best selling single of all times (5 million copies in its first week of release alone). On 13 September 1997, two weeks following the Princess's death, the single was already out in the shops.
[2] Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, best known as the Queen Mother (1900-2002), widow of George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II.
[3] Andy Richards, “Mass hysteria”, The Argos (Hove), 06/04/2002
[4] “Media ignores the real human tragedy”, Socialist Worker no 1794, 06/04/2002, page 3.
[5] Josie Appleton, “The Queen Mum Queuers. How was it for you?”,, 11/04/2002.
[6] The Sun, Editorial, 04/04/2002.
[7] Stephen Robinson, “Two weeks that reaffirmed our faith in royalty and confounded the critics”, Telegraph, 30/04/2002
[8] Ben Pimlott, The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy, 2002.
[9] Simon Jeffer, QM’s Obituary, The Guardian, 30/03/2002
[10] BBC Press Release 05/04/2002
[11] The Guardian, “This is the full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother at Westminster Abbey”, 09/04/2002
[12] John Gormley, “Our Media’s Blinkered View on Royal Death”, South Belfast News, 05/04/2002
[13] Jennie Bristow, “Queen Mummified?”,, 02/04/2002
[14] Simon Jeffer, ibid.
[15] Andrew Pierce, “What Queen Mother really thought of Attlee’s socialist heaven on earth”, The Times, 13/05/2006
[16] Johann Hari (2002), God Save The Queen, Cambridge: Icon Books.
[17] Davy Carlin, “Guess Who?”, Andersonstown News, 08/04/2002
[18] Johann Hari, ibid.
[19] “The Nation's best Granny? The truth about the Queen Mother”, Socialist Worker no.1794, 06/04/2002
[20] Davy Carlin, ibid.
[21] Maurice Bernal, “Official Britain on Parade”, Weekly Worker no.427, 11/04/2002
[22] Richard Kay, “Royal Fury at the BBC”, The Daily Mail, 02/04/2002
[23] “Sissons hits back at critics”,, 03/04/2002
[24] A N Wilson “What this past week has told us about Britain today”, Telegraph, 07/04/2002
[25] Emily Bell, “Greg Dyke was right to snub the Queen Mother”, The Guardian, 21/05/2000
[27] D. Bamber and C. Hastings, “Viewers distressed by lack of respect shown by BBC”, Telegraph, 31/03/2002
[28]A. Taylor, “Tuned in to what is a film turn on” The Sunday Herald, 07/04/2002
[29] The Spectator, 19 April 2002.

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